Wednesday, December 28, 2011
City Illegally Fired Police Chief Without Notice—C.A.
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A small city in the state’s Central Valley violated the rights of its former police chief when it terminated his employment without notice, a statement of reasons, or an administrative appeal, even though it paid him through the end of his contract, the Fifth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
The justices Friday affirmed a Madera Superior Court judge’s ruling that former Chowchilla police chief is entitled to enforce his rights under the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act, as well as to about $50,000 in damages and prejudgment interest for breach of contract. In a companion case yesterday, the panel ordered the trial court to reconsider its denial of Robinson’s motion for attorney fees under the private attorney general statute.
Chowchilla hired Robinson in 1997 under a three-year contract that provided for automatic renewal unless either party gave notice of non-renewal at least six months in advance. Neither party gave notice prior to the original expiration date, so the contract was automatically renewed through September 2003.
The agreement also set out procedures for suspension, discipline, and termination, but did specified that if those procedures were in conflict with POBRA, the statute would prevail. Among the provisions was that the council could terminate the agreement prior to its expiration date with six months’ notice, and that the chief would receive six months’ severance pay in the event of such termination.
In March 2003, the city administrator, Nancy Red, informed Robinson that the council wanted to renegotiate his contract and would not renew the existing agreement. She testified that she gave the chief a letter to that effect, although Robinson said he didn’t see the letter prior to a meeting with the administrator in June.
On Sept. 5, 2003, Red informed the chief that his contract would not be renewed, and that was required to remove himself and his belongings from the building immediately. When he inquired about his rights to notice and severance pay, he was told that he would be paid through the end of the month, when his contract was set to expire, but not beyond that.
When the city refused his demand for immediate reinstatement, he filed suit.
Judge James Oakley ruled that the chief’s contract automatically renewed because he did not receive notice of non-renewal by March 29, 2003; that the abrupt treatment he received from the city constituted removal from office, entitling him to invoke POBRA rights; and that he was entitled to severance pay as per his contract. The judge denied his fee motion under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 1021.5, however, holding that the POBRA issue did not broadly affect the public interest.
Justice Betty Dawson, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the trial judge’s interpretation of POBRA, not the city’s, was correct.
The relevant provision, Government Code Sec. 3304(c), states:
“No chief of police may be removed by a public agency, or appointing authority, without providing the chief of police with written notice and the reason or reasons therefor and an opportunity for administrative appeal.
“For purposes of this subdivision, the removal of a chief of police by a public agency or appointing authority, for the purpose of implementing the goals or policies, or both, of the public agency or appointing authority, for reasons including, but not limited to, incompatibility of management styles or as a result of a change in administration, shall be sufficient to constitute ‘reason or reasons.’
“Nothing in this subdivision shall be construed to create a property interest, where one does not exist by rule or law, in the job of Chief of Police.”
“After September 5, 2003, Robinson no longer held the office of police chief because the authority and responsibilities of the police chief were no longer his. That authority and responsibility had been given to another person, the person appointed as acting chief. The acts of forcing Robinson to leave the physical office, taking the authority of police chief away from him, and giving both the physical office and the authority of police chief to someone else constitute a removal from office.”
That interpretation, she said, is consistent with the legislative history of the provision, which suggests that it was enacted to protect chiefs from abuse by elected officials, and thus enable them to run their departments with some degree of insulation from local politics.
In her opinion yesterday on the fee issue, Dawson said the ruling “enforced an important right affecting the public interest and conferred a significant benefit on the general public and a large class of persons.” On remand, she said, the judge must determine whether the “financial burden of private enforcement” justifies a private attorney general award, “using the cost-benefit analysis recently approved by the California Supreme Court in Conservatorship of Whitley (2010) 50 Cal.4th 1206.”
The cases are Robinson v. City of Chowchilla, 11 S.O.S. 7012, and Robinson v. City of Chowchilla, 11 S.O.S. 7022.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company